The boy walked as slowly as he could; he was going to be late anyway. His badly scuffed trainers kicked an empty beer can along the wet pavement. As he emerged from the narrow path between two tall blocks of flats onto the High Street the clouds parted and the sun shone on his pale thin face. Instead of waiting at the stop for the bus that would take him to school, he turned towards the Common. He walked past the fenced off children's playground and almost failed to notice the man sprawled on the bench, lying absolutely still. Old drunk, he thought, then with surprise noticed the smart new black leather shoes. The man's dark overcoat was of a better quality and much cleaner than the usual clothing worn by the men he saw sleeping on park benches. He approached silently, warily, weighing up the chance that he would be able to remove those desirable new shoes without waking the drunk. Then he saw the hole in the smooth fabric of the coat and he knew the man would never wake again. He knew what to do; only last week he'd seen something like this happen on the telly. Feeling important, he went to the nearest phone box and dialled 999. "There's a dead man," he said, trying to sound older, trying to disguise his voice, "he's in the kid's playground on Clapham Common. I think he's been shot." Before questions could be asked, he put the phone down and headed for the bus stop. He would feel safer in school.
That evening he watched the local news with carefully hidden excitement as the newsreader described how an anonymous tip-off had led police to the discovery of the body of local businessman Simon Gower. He had been found shot dead on Clapham Common. Forensic examination of the bullet had determined that the murder weapon was a small pistol, a Beretta 86, but a search of the Common had failed to find the gun.
Not far from the council flat where the boy lived in Clapham was a more spacious and desirable flat on Brixton Hill. Here, a young woman named Lisa was watching the same local news program. Her feelings were very different from the boy's, for one thing, she had known the dead man. He had been the chairman of the company she worked for, the all-powerful tyrant who ruled the office in Clapham where she was employed as a secretary. She had not known him well; she had only worked there for two months. Her boyfriend Peter had known him for longer, had worked for him for years. The Brixton Hill flat was Peter's, when she had at last made the decision to move in with him he had told her about the vacancy for a secretary at his office and encouraged her to apply. So here she was, starting a new life in South London.
People in the quiet country village where she had lived before moving in with Peter had heard of Brixton only in connection with street crime and race riots. They imagined a place where you couldn't go out to the corner shop without witnessing at least one drive-by shooting. Lisa had been relieved to find that Peter's flat was in one of the most peaceful parts of Brixton. Still, she would have preferred it if Peter had not had to spend so many evenings working late, often taking important clients to dinner. They hardly ever went home together after work. Now he was in New York on a business trip. He hadn't wanted to spend three weeks away from her but Simon Gower had insisted that he go. His parting warning to be careful if she went out at night had done nothing to reassure her. But she had made one friend, at least, a young woman who was another of the secretaries. Julie was divorced and childless, eager to get together for a drink after work. Nightlife in Brixton and Clapham was of two types and so far Lisa had only tried one of them, the glossy wine bars and restaurants Peter and his colleagues preferred. Julie knew a different Brixton, pubs that were seedy but exciting dens of scuffed furniture and worn carpets, pint glasses and pool tables. Before coming to Brixton she had seen very few black people. None of Peter's friends were black and there was only one black person at work, the office manager Cicely Ford, who seemed to Lisa aloof and unapproachable. At Julie's local, black and white people mixed in roughly equal numbers and it seemed that to them race was unimportant. The gap here was between rich and poor. Lisa knew she could never invite these people, renters of council flats and tiny bedsits, to Peter's Brixton Hill flat filled with Habitat furniture. She wore her oldest jeans for these outings with Julie.
They seemed to accept her without question as Julie's friend and soon she relaxed and stopped feeling like an outsider. They ignored her presence as they made the occasional deal for small amounts of cannabis. She told them how Peter had warned her against going out at night and they laughed, but later a tall black man who she knew only as Smiles spoke to her quietly. "If you don't feel safe at night, I've got something that could help you. I'll even sell it to you cheap, because I like you."
"What do you mean?" she asked. She knew he was one of the drug dealers and had already decided to refuse politely if offered anything.
"You need to buy a gun and I've got one to sell. It's yours for two hundred pounds."
"A gun! Are you serious? I don't even know how to use a gun!"
"No problem, that's easy. It's loaded and ready, you just point it and pull the trigger. You've seen it done in the movies, right? I'll tell you what, I don't want to see you get hurt, I'll bring the price down to a hundred and fifty."
"I don't think I really need a gun!"
"Well, there's some bad people out there, I'd hate to see what they could do to a pretty girl like you, that's why I'm giving you a good price. Think about it. I'll give you a day to make up your mind. Come and find me tomorrow, early evening. I'll be at my place in Pacific Lane, there's some steps down to a blue door. Bring the money with you. Remember, I can't afford to hang on to it for long, so if I don't see you tomorrow I'll have to offer it to someone else."
When she left the pub at closing time, Lisa decided to wait at the bus stop near Brixton tube station. In the daytime she would have walked, it would take only fifteen minutes and though it was uphill she was fit and used to walking. But remembering Peter's warning she felt safer at the crowded bus stop, surrounded by people. When she got off the bus she hurried round the corner to her flat. She wondered what she would do if a man followed her off the bus. It was with relief that she switched on the light in the hallway and turned the key in the Chubb lock.
The next day as she drank her morning tea she searched Peter's A to Z for Pacific Lane, SW9. It seemed a small road to be named after such a large ocean. She went to the bank in her lunch hour and withdrew a hundred and fifty pounds. She didn't put it in her purse but into a small pocket inside the large leather shoulder bag she took everywhere. She was ready to buy a gun.
After work she walked to Brixton, down Clapham Park Road and Acre Lane, holding tightly to her bag. She was not used to having that much cash. She found Pacific Lane easily, it led from Atlantic Road down to the railway arches. All the houses were the same, tall and narrow, semi-detached, rubbish bins lining the narrow passages between them. Three wide steps led up to the front door and behind a railing a few narrow steps led down to the door of the basement. She could tell from the number of bells by the front doors that most of the houses had been converted into flats. She walked down the road slowly, searching for the blue door. Most of the basement doors were white, a few were black or brown. None of them was newly painted. A train rattled high above the road. At last she found it, a door with peeling paint, bright blue. It was the last house in the road, wedged close against the railway.
At her knock, the door was opened by a man she didn't recognise. "Is Smiles here?" she asked, hoping she hadn't got the wrong house. But the man said "Yes, he's here" and stood aside to let her in, shutting the door after her. He showed her to a room where Smiles sat at a table, rolling a joint.
"Lisa!" he said, "I thought you'd come and find me. I've got what you need. Harry, leave us for a minute, man. I've got business with this lady."
But the man didn't seem to want to leave. Instead, he pulled out a chair and sat down at the table. Lisa, feeling awkward at being the only one standing, did the same. "What about my stuff, then, Smiles? You said you'd have it for me today."
"You got the money for me today, Harry?"
"Come on, man, I told you! I've got this big job coming up, I'm getting well paid! Won't be more than a week, I swear it."
"So in a week, you come to see me, I'll have the stuff for you. Right now I need to get down to business with this girl. You got the money for me, darling?"
Lisa instinctively glanced down at her bag. "Yes, I've got it," she said as Harry left the room, "can I see the gun?"
Smiles got up and shut the door behind Harry. Then from the pocket of his coat he took out the gun and put it on the table between them. "This is a Beretta 86," he said, "the perfect self defence pistol. It's loaded, ready to fire."
The gun was made of blue-grey metal, with grip panels of dark wood. It was small enough to fit easily into her bag. "This is the safety catch," Smiles said, showing her a small lever, "when this is up, the safety is on. To load it, you do this." Smiles flipped the barrel up and removed the magazine, then showed her how to fit it back in.
Lisa took the money from her bag and put it on the table. Her heartbeat speeded up as she reached for the weapon. The steel felt cold in her hand. She put it into her bag. "Thanks, Smiles," she said as she stood up, "I'll feel a lot safer now. I just hope I'll never need to use it."
"Better to be safe," he replied, "pleasure to do business with you, Lisa. Take care now."
As she climbed the steps to the street Lisa realised that darkness had fallen while she was in the basement flat. She walked towards Atlantic road, feeling strong and confident and free now she had the means to protect herself. As she walked up Brixton Hill she laughed at herself for ever being afraid. I was worrying about nothing, she thought, it's not as if I've had any trouble at night. She turned into a side street and heard running footsteps behind her. Even then she was not afraid. She started to turn round, but it was too late. She felt strong hands tugging at the strap of her bag, then the snap as the strap broke. The man ran on ahead of her as for a moment she stood frozen with shock. He was a tall man wearing a dark jacket with the hood up, she had not seen his face. She started to run after him, shouting "Stop! My bag!" She thought, this can't really be happening, not to me, I'm going to wake up any minute and it will all be a bad dream. He ran round the corner and she chased after him, and almost fell over her bag which he had dropped on the pavement. It was open and half the stuff in it had spilled out. It took her a few minutes to collect everything with shaking hands and put it back in the bag. Her purse was there, with a small amount of change in it, a twenty pound note which should have been there was gone. Her mobile was there, her keys, the case with her credit and debit cards, all were there. She searched desperately through the make up items and scraps of paper that remained in the bag. It was no good. The gun was gone.
And now, two days later, she was staring at the TV as the newsreader described a murder weapon, and there on the screen was a picture of a gun, a Beretta 86, that looked very much like the one she had owned for so short a time. From their analysis of the bullet, this was the type of gun the police had been hoping to find when they searched the common. It was a good thing, she thought, that she hadn't known this in the morning when the police were at the office asking questions. At least she had been able to react naturally to the death of Simon Gower, no more afraid of being questioned than any other employee. For the first time she wondered where the gun had come from, somehow she didn't think Smiles could be its legal owner. Obviously she could not tell the police about her missing gun.
In his flat on the top floor of a neglected, crumbling Brixton house, Harry was watching the same program on his old portable. When it moved on to the next news item, he switched off the TV. He thought he might have a bath. Then he remembered he'd already had a bath just a few hours ago. He looked at his hands, his skin was rough with too much washing, too much soap. He badly needed to get some stuff from Smiles, still, tomorrow he should have the money. Suddenly he wished he could go back to the time before drugs had taken over his life, when he'd enjoyed the occasional hit of cocaine at weekends. He missed his wife but he knew he couldn't blame her for not wanting to stay with him.
Even at the time of the accident they had stayed close, he had not tried to hide anything from her, he had trusted her completely. It was later, after he had lost his job and was sinking deeper into a whirlpool of drink and drugs, that she had decided to leave him. He wanted to see her now, she was the only person who could help him. But he couldn't go to her, couldn't trust himself not to reveal too much. She cared for him, he knew, but there was a limit to her tolerance.
He couldn't stop thinking about the phone call he had got last week. It was rare for his phone to ring these days and the noise had startled him. It was late at night but Harry never went to bed early. He answered and a voice he didn't recognise spoke, plunging him into nightmare.
"Hello, Harry. You don't know me but I've found out a lot about you. I saw you in your car, the night when you ran over that little girl. She was only eight years old, Harry, crossing the road to go to the shop, to spend her pocket money on sweets. You ran her down and you didn't even stop. She might have been still alive, did you think of that? Or didn't you care? You just drove on home in your blue BMW. Had you been drinking, Harry? I think you must have been drunk, the way you were driving. You were going much too fast when you hit the girl. Could be she didn't die at once, if you'd stopped and called an ambulance they might have been able to save her. You see, Harry, I saw what you did, and now I've found out who you are. I know where you live, Harry. I could go to the police but that won't help that little girl."
Harry couldn't breathe. He'd managed to live with himself for a year by putting the details of the accident out of his mind with drink and drugs. He had been seen! He should have known he wouldn't get away with it.
"There's something you could do for me, Harry," the voice went on, "and if you do it, then in return, I won't tell the police about what I saw."
Memories came crowding back into his mind. Driving fast down the road, knowing he was drunk but not caring, then suddenly a glimpse of the child running and a jolt as the car hit her and flung her into the air. A picture flashed before his eyes, the child's body crushed and bleeding on the road, her neck bent in such a way that he knew it must be broken. He had not doubted for a moment that she was dead.
"What do you want?" Harry whispered. His throat felt sore.
"What I'm asking you to do is nothing like as bad as killing a sweet little girl. There's a man, a cruel, evil man who I want out of the way. I'm not a killer so I can't do it myself. But you've already killed once, I know. I'm asking you to kill a man."
He told Harry the name of the man he wanted dead. Harry had met him once and remembered him well. He knew where to find him.
The murder of Simon Gower had completely stopped work at Ambience plc. The police had been there of course and questioned everyone in the office. Now, two days after the body was found, they had gone but nobody felt able to get on with work as if nothing had happened. People wandered about aimlessly, restlessly, indulging in coffee and gossip. Lisa found out more about the people she worked with in one day than she had in all the time she'd been there. The source of most of her information was Claudia the receptionist, who had a lively interest in other people's business, particularly their love affairs.
"Why would someone want to kill Simon?" Lisa asked her.
"I don't know at all! He wasn't a bad boss, I mean, some people thought he expected too much, but he was fair, he worked very hard himself. He used to come in early and finish late, sometimes he was here quite late in the evening. It was probably a gang that tried to mug him and he tried to fight back. I guess it was just bad luck that it was him."
"Then why did the police come here and ask all those questions? It was as if they thought someone here could have done it." Lisa knew that if they ever discovered she had bought the gun, she'd be answering a lot of questions herself. The police hadn't spent much time on her after they found out she'd only been in the job for two months. Luckily they hadn't bothered to take her fingerprints.
"Oh, I don't think they could have really thought that! I mean, there'll be changes here now Simon's not running things, some of us might even lose our jobs! David will be taking over for a while, he'll be acting chairman till the directors appoint someone. If he does well they might even keep him as chairman! At least that's what I hear. Your friend Julie will be pleased, she was seeing him for a while after she got divorced."
"Isn't he married?"
"Yes, of course he is, but Julie was so low at the time, coping with her marriage breaking up, I suppose he made her feel better. I don't suppose his wife ever knew, it didn't last very long. It happens a lot, you know, women in offices having affairs with the Boss. I think Cicely's been seeing someone at work, but I'm not sure who. I'm starting to think it might have been Simon! Just in the last few days, she's not been her usual self. She's usually so calm and now she seems to snap at me every time I speak to her!"
Lisa was relieved that Peter had agreed to be completely open with everyone at work about their relationship. There was no keeping secrets from Claudia.
She went in to Julie's room and saw that she was on the phone.
"Look, you can't keep calling me at work," Julie was saying, "I'll try and make it to your place in the next few days. Meanwhile, you'll just have to manage without me. I mean, it's not like we're still married." For a moment she listened to the caller's reply. "Yes, I will, sometime this week, I'll call you. See you then." She put the phone down and turned to Lisa. "That was my ex-husband. He doesn't seem to realise we're not married any more and I don't have to go running to him every time he calls."
"I just came to see if you wanted to go out for a drink."
"Not tonight, my sister's invited me for dinner. Tomorrow, if you like."
So that meant another night in for Lisa with nothing better to do than to watch the News, hoping the Police had not managed to find the missing murder weapon. But the next evening, as planned, she went to the pub with Julie.
It was very quiet in the pub, for some reason hardly anyone was out. None of Julie's usual friends were there. They had finished the first drink and were deciding whether to have another one there or go somewhere else when Julie's phone rang. She looked at the caller's name on her phone screen. "My ex- husband!" she said to Lisa before answering the call.
"Hi, Harry," she said, "what is it this time?" She listened for a few minutes, then she said "No, you mustn't do that! I'm coming over now. At least wait till I get there! Harry, I'll see you soon."
"I'm sorry, Lisa, I'd better go. He says he's going to kill himself. I don't believe for a moment he really will, it's a cry for help, that's all. It's not far from here, it shouldn't take long. Tell you what, could you come with me? I hate being alone with him when he's been drinking, he scares me sometimes. Please?"
"I will if you're sure you really want me."
"Of course I do! You have no idea what he can be like. We might find that by the time we get there he's feeling better. Then we can go back to the pub."
It took them about ten minutes to walk to the run-down old building where Harry lived. Julie rang Harry's bell but he did not come to the door. "The flat's on the third floor," Julie said, "it might take him a minute or two to come down." So they waited a few minutes and tried the bell again. There was no answer. Lisa started to wonder if Harry might have decided not to wait for them and gone out. Then Julie said, "I've still got my key. Maybe we should just go up."
Julie opened the door with her key and they started to climb the stairs. Lisa could see that her friend was starting to look very worried. They reached the top floor flat and Julie let herself in with her key. They walked through a small hallway into the living room. There they saw Harry. He was lying on the sofa as if he had fallen there. A pool of blood was soaking into the cushion under his head. On the floor by his feet was a gun. In spite of the damage the bullet had done to his face, Lisa recognised him with horror as the man she had seen in the basement flat in Pacific Lane.
On the table was a note with Julie's name on it. She picked it up and as she read it the look of shock and despair on her face deepened. Tears streamed down her face as she passed it wordlessly to Lisa.
I thought it would help me to tell everything to you, as I have so many times in the past, but I find I cannot face you with the knowledge of my guilt. I would rather die than see fear in your eyes when you look into mine.
I will confess to you in this note, I killed Simon Gower. I shot him dead with a stolen gun which I will now use to take my own life. I was seen when I ran over the child. The man who saw me threatened to go to the police if I did not kill Gower for him. I can't live with myself after killing a man who never did anything to harm me.
Julie, I have always loved you. Please forgive me if you can.
Julie gazed through her tears at the body of her dead ex-husband. "It can't be true," she said, so softly Lisa could hardly hear, "he wouldn't do it, I know. But Harry was so sure at the time that nobody could have seen him."
"Should we call the police?" Lisa asked. In spite of her horror at finding a dead man, she could not help being worried about what would happen if her finger prints were found on the gun.
"No! At least, not yet. There's someone I must go and see at once, to put my mind at rest. I need to know what made Harry do this to himself. Even after we stopped living together I still cared for him. I wish I'd gone to see him when he called yesterday. Maybe I could have stopped this."
"I'll come with you," said Lisa. She didn't feel she could leave Julie while she was in the first shock of grief.
It was quite a long walk to the street where Julie was heading, a tree lined avenue in South Clapham. They walked in through the front gate of a large house with one doorbell by the front door to indicate it was lived in by a single family. Julie didn't go up to the door but walked round to the side of the house where a large Mercedes was parked. "Good, he's here," Julie said when she saw the car. "Lisa, I really appreciate it that you came with me, but I think I'd better see him on my own. You know whose house this is, don't you?" Lisa shook her head. "It's David's place," Julie went on, "you must have heard gossip about us at the office? I think he'd prefer it if I went in there alone." On this side of the house was a French door with glass panels, light shining through onto the drive. Julie knocked gently at this door as Lisa hid behind the Mercedes. Almost at once the door was opened by David. Julie went into the brightly lit room leaving Lisa outside in the cold. After a while Lisa edged nearer to the door. Julie had left it slightly open and Lisa found that if she stood against the wall near the door, she could hear what they were saying without risking being seen.
"I really need to know, David! Who did you tell?" Julie was saying.
"I've never said a word to anyone! Would I do that, after you told me in confidence?"
"I haven't told anyone except you about the accident and I'm sure Harry didn't tell anyone except me, so it must be someone who found out about it from you!"
"How can you be so sure he wasn't seen? Harry thought he could have been seen, didn't he?"
"David, it wasn't you, was it? Did you get Harry to kill Simon just so you could take his place at work?"
"Come on, Julie, you can't possibly think that! Would I murder somebody just to get a promotion? You can't seriously believe I'd do that! My God, Julie, put that gun away! Simon was my friend, we went out for drinks and dinner together, I wouldn't kill him! Julie, you're upset about Harry, you can't think sensibly at this time. When you feel better you'll realise I wouldn't do a thing like that. Now, give me the gun. Julie, I thought you and I could trust each other. There, that's better, guns are dangerous things. I'll keep it for you. I hope you haven't been accusing me to anyone else."
"No, I came to see you first. I'm sorry, David."
"You haven't been to the police yet? Or phoned them?"
"No, I was in such a hurry to speak to you, I came straight here."
"That's good. This gun you were pointing at me, it's the one Harry used to kill himself?"
"Of course it is! How else would I get a gun? David, don't do that, it scares me!"
"Now you know how it feels to have someone point a gun at you! Not very pleasant, is it? I wish I didn't have to do this, but I never thought Harry would kill himself and explain everything in a letter to you. I thought I could get away without doing any of the dirty work. It wasn't just for the job, Simon found out I'd taken some money from the company account. I begged him to give me time to replace it but he said if it wasn't put back in a week he'd report me to the police and I'd get the sack. I would have been completely disgraced if I hadn't remembered what you'd told me about Harry. Thank you for bringing me the gun and the suicide note. I'll take your body to Harry's flat and it will look like a double suicide, the alcoholic and his lonely ex-wife. I'll burn the note and there'll be nothing to connect him with Simon."
"There's just one problem," Julie said desperately, "I lied to you about not telling the police. They're on their way here now!"
"Nice try, Julie, but I just don't believe you."
Lisa could think of only one way to save her friend. Making her voice as deep and loud as possible, she shouted, "Police! Open up." There was a moment of absolute silence, then the sound of the gun.
Julie rushed out through the French door. "Lisa! He's shot himself!"
Lisa insisted that they call the police. She just wanted the nightmare to be over. She couldn't imagine how Julie was feeling, seeing the bodies of two men she had loved, dead in one day. The police got there very quickly and questioned them both for hours. Lisa told the truth about everything since the phone call from Harry. She did not say anything about buying the gun, hoping that her finger prints would have rubbed off since Harry, Julie and David had all handled the gun after her. They were in a lot of trouble for not reporting the suicide earlier, but Julie's solicitor maintained that finding her ex-husband's body had shocked her into an unbalanced mental state. Lisa, of course, had felt she needed to stay with Julie while she was in this unbalanced mental state. In the end no charges were made against them.
Julie took a week off work to get over the trauma of seeing David's suicide and finding Harry's body, so Lisa was the centre of attention in the office. Everyone found time to come round to her desk with some question about work, and soon turned the conversation to the events leading to David's death. The only exception was Cicely Ford who seemed to be avoiding Lisa. Of course Claudia soon noticed this and repeated to Lisa her guess that Cicely had been having an affair with Simon Gower. "At least, I'm sure she was having an affair with someone here," Claudia said.
The next day Peter came back from New York. When Lisa got back from work he had just arrived back at the flat. He had heard that Simon Gower had been killed and David had taken over temporarily, but that was all. Lisa filled him in on what had happened since. Then she found that Peter had something to tell her. He confessed that just before leaving for New York he had ended an affair that had been going on for a few months with Cicely Ford.
He was surprised at how calmly Lisa took this revelation. What she thought was that it wasn't so terrible compared to the two confessions of murder she had recently witnessed, but she did feel relieved that she hadn't trusted Peter with the full story. She had given him the edited version she had told the police, leaving out everything about buying the gun in that basement flat in Pacific Lane.